|The LifeStory Institute
The writer's workshop for memoirists, autobiographers and family historians.
LifeStory was founded in 1991 as a how-to newsletter/magazine and also as an over-the-road workshop
travelling North America teaching and coaching new and longtime writers of all ages how to write about
their lives and the lives of their ancestors. The premise is that everyone can, and probably should, write
their life story to pass on to their family,friends,and others interested, including and perhaps especially,
All material on this website unless otherwise indicated is Copyright 2017 by The LifeStory Institute.
THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG
28 days to writing more or less happily for the rest of your life!
PROMPTS are what you need to get past the problem of not having anything to write about. It leads to writer’s block, which is 100% fatal for a
writer. The only cure for writer’s block is to deny you have it and go on writing. Otherwise, you’re not a writer, you’re a wannabe writer. There
are numerous causes to writer’s block but prompts are the way to avoid it.
So make a list, a long list, of prompts to get you going and keep you going and keep it handy at your writing desk. Make the prompts in
advance. Have 10 or 20 at hand when you sit down to write, and don’t walk past the first one and say, Oh, I don’t feel like that one now. Start
writing with the next one that comes up.
Your prompts aren’t always mine. Your best prompts are those that come to you unbidden in the course of the day. Write things down. Make
a note and stick it under your keyboard or clip it to your monitor. Don’t say, Oh, that’s a good one, and then expect to find it there on the tip of
your fingers when you sit down to write. You’ll draw a blank.
I tend to have my ideas for writing come at me at the oddest moments (driving, bathing, always I seem to be doing something that prevents
note-taking), and so I cease what I’m doing just as soon as I can and start writing. The ideas usually come in batches. I have “idea attacks.”
Prompts are specific. They are not things like “write about Mom.” They are things like “write about the time Mom told the policeman she was
going to take his badge number and call the county.” Make a list of these narrative prompts. Make a written list!
DAY 24 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Fri., Feb. 24, 2017
I can still see it. I lean back in my place here on the couch in Olympia, Washington, laptop at the ready, and I close my eyes to see the cover of
my six week report MY OCCUPATION AS A PRINTER for one Mr. Delbert L. Donnell, the teacher of my 8th grade Social Studies class.
Our assignment was to research via books and other library resources and also to work after school and on Saturdays at a job that was what
we felt would be our life’s work. The work itself would constitute the bulk of the research. It was a sensible and interesting assignment. I was
probably the only child in 8th grade doing this report who already had a real job.
In 7th grade, the year before, in the fall of 1951 after the great flood had nearly destroyed our downtown Manhattan, Kansas, I went down and
walked into a print shop, Graham Printers, and asked for a job. I think Mr. and Mrs. Graham thought I was a cute little wisp of a boy and they
needed all the help they could get to clean up their shop after the flood so they hired me at 25 cents an hour.
For a long time most of my day was spent going through cases of type and cleaning each piece—a typical case would have several hundred
pieces that had to be thoroughly cleaned. Flood mud was of course everywhere. Mr. and Mrs. Graham had themselves cleaned up and
repaired most of the shop after the waters had receded that terrible summer. But there were tiny things—types, to name one—that had to be
cleaned so they could be used once again to do the work of printing in a “job shop,” where the business was printing business and personal
stationery, business and calling cards, envelopes, menus, invoices, and so on. All the stuff that now you go into a copy shop and get printed
while you wait—in those days was laborious done by hand with real ink and real presses.
I had worked there more than a year after school and on Saturdays when I started my occupation report, and of course I continued to work
there all through the making of the report. I also took a printing class from the industrial arts department of my junior high school, and there I
was allowed to print the front and back covers of my report.
The cover on the back was a plain light blue plaid stock paper, expensive stuff, maybe costing as much as a dime for each cover—of which
there would be only one copy, of course. On the front I printed the title as well as my name, the teacher’s name, the date, and all that stuff. The
report looked like it was something to be submitted to the President of the United States by a Congressional committee.
Perhaps as a terrible forecast of what was to come in my literary life, I made the beautiful cover and on the night before I quickly typed up a
couple of pages I’d cobbled, having done nothing but my on-the-job research, and I bound the thing together and submitted it with considerable
trepidation to the disapproving look (at the thinness of my report) of Mr. Donnell. I received an D- for my report and an F for the six weeks in
Social Studies. The F was carefully printed with red ink, and the comment was Charles fails to properly complete his assignments. #journaling
DAY 23 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Thu., February 23, 2017
So Mom and Dad got married. My brother Hal was born before they left Indianapolis. Dad got a job in a medical clinic in Minot, North
Dakota. I was born in Minot in 1938. Imagine now this party girl turning into a very serious mother of two growing boys. There’s a war coming:
everybody knows it. We are led by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, halfway into his second term. He doesn’t know it but I get his last name as my
middle name. Chances are pretty good a million other kids got the same name that year. I would learn to cringe under it, and in my dreams to
hear the chants and cries of other boys on the playground: Hey, Roosevelt! Roosevelt! Yan yan yah! Rosie, catch this! And they’d throw a
dried dog turd at me.
I remember nothing of North Dakota. It may as well have been North Mongolia, for all I knew of it. Forty miles from the Canadian border in
case we wanted to make a run for it. I guess. We moved to Kansas in 1942. I begin to have experiences that I remember today—sledding,
riding a crowded bus and being taken to a movie, getting my hand caught in a wringer washing machine.
But I was telling my mother’s story, or trying to, wasn’t I? By 1942, a war on, eight years into being an old married, Mom is a tough cookie, a
can do city girl who has some mileage now.
Dad went into the Army. We moved to Texas where Dad was stationed for a few months to learn some basic Army stuff, and then he’s sent
overseas to North Africa. We get V-mail (no relation to Email, the V stood for Victory mail and it was a photocopy of the actual letter after it
came from the censor), and Mom reads it to my brother and me and her parents by lamplight in the old cabin that Gramps had built in a place
so rudimentary it didn’t even have a name except: The Old Holler.
We back in Indiana now, but this is far different from Indianapolis, this is pure country; almost hillbilly country in rural southern Indiana, nearest
town is a village called Poland, Indiana. Mom is now the financial support and head of a family of five: her aged mother and father, her two
sons, and herself. We are country people. She learns how to light a kerosene lamp, make a fire in the wood and coal stove, help her mother
with making dinner, get her 10 and 6 year old sons to pump a pail of water, hang out the laundry done on a wash board, and to buy a house
after some time up and out of the Holler and right across from the school, where her sons go to learn. She has by the time school started
taught them to read from the Indianapolis Star comic pages.
The war ends. We move to my father’s village in Wisconsin. Her mother has died in 1943 of a kidney disease, barely more than sixty years
old. Her father is placed temporarily in a nursing home in Indiana. Dad comes home; they have not seen or talked to one another in four
years. He is by then a man of 43, and Mom is 37; they are middle aged. Where has their youth gone?
They move back to Kansas and Dad takes up his medical practice. Mom settles in and sets up housekeeping in a series of rented homes.
You can’t buy a house, and building materials are not yet available. The War has consumed everything.###
DAY 21 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Tue., Feb. 21, 2017
So, it’s Journalong time. What do I have to say for myself this morning? I remember kindly old men who would look at me when I was presented
to them—as a child of 8 or 10, and they would say, Well, son, and what do you have to say for yourself? And of course I would stumble around
and say something like, Nothing, sir. And they would laugh and tousle my hair.
Actually I’m not sure I ever used the word “sir” until I was in the service (sir-vice, get it?) and was forced to. I don’t know why I didn’t say Sir—I
did say ma’am—but it just wasn’t part of my vocabulary. I remember a new student in high school who came up to Kansas from the south—
Dallas, I think—and he called every man sir and, especially, his father. I wouldn’t have ever thought of calling my father anything other than Dad.
Instead of Southern obedience, did we have something like Midwestern egalitarianism?
I don’t know. I do know that now when someone calls me sir I cringe a little. I expect them to write me a ticket for speeding or tell me I owe them
On the other hand, in the last few years I’ve come to believe in a God of my understanding, and this God is a voice—the voice—in my head. He
is in charge, and so I salute him in the morning when I see myself in the mirror and I say, Good morning, sir!
Crazy, no? But it works for me.
One time my beloved June and I had a fierce argument that went on for a hour or more, sitting at the kitchen table, no one else at home, and
we went at it hammer and tongs. I don’t even remember what it was about, but I remember at one point I blurted out, “I never promised you that I
was sane!” And we looked at one another in surprise, and then laughed…and the argument was over.
In the olden days whenever we had an argument and then made up I would suggest we seal the deal with a roll in the hay. June would look
astonished and suggest that it was too soon, that some time would have to go by before we could be all nuzzly again. And I would try to reason
with her: after all, weren’t we kissing and making up? But June didn’t see it quite that way. Some time had to pass. And the more I debated that
practice, I soon realized, the more I was tempting fate—that I would be starting a new argument. So I bit my tongue and waited.
I don’t speak for all men, thank God, but I have come to realize that rationality and sex don’t mix too well. Pushing 80, I think probably my last
thought will be a sexual one, a look at the bosom of the nurse, perhaps, or should I be so lucky, and far better, June’s kind hand on my
forehead, and could I yet utter a word or two, and I’d say, Are you horny? And then I would pass into history. #journaling.
DAY 20 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Mon., Feb. 20, 2017
I am afraid of heights, I am afraid of depths, I am claustrophobic—the idea of having an MRI or CT scan fills me with dread. I am afraid of
confrontation with others. I am afraid of poisonous snakes and poisonous spiders.
I am not afraid of crowds. I am not afraid to stand up in front of a group and speak, whether the group is ten or a hundred or a thousand. I am
not afraid of…writing!
I am afraid that a list like this is getting me nowhere this morning. I want to write something that will be useful to people who want to write
something…maybe to be useful themselves.
Outside it is raining. Not hard, not now. Just a kind of drizzle or even at times a mist—the sort of rain that is so common here in Puget Sound. I
am just a few hundred yards from the Sound. If I had a boat I could walk down to it moored somewhere in a cove and get on it and sail to Japan.
Of course, I could just as well turn left at the corner instead of right and I could walk all the way to New York City. It might take me till late
summer to get there.
I actually did meet and with friends spend a few hours with a lady known as the “Peace Pilgrim” who walked everywhere and depended on the
kindness of strangers to feed her, listen to her talk about peace, and speed her on her way to the next town.
As you might guess, she was in pretty good physical condition, a lady in her 60s to judge from her gray hair (I was about 30 then), rather
severe looking and a very serious person. I respected her and kind of envied her her freedom…and her commitment to peace.
I went home thinking, Gee, maybe I ought to do that. But come Monday morning, there I was back in the classroom teaching good old
Freshman English. Now there’s something I didn’t fear. I didn’t fear teaching of any kind. I could probably get up in front of a class of post-
doctoral students in physics and teach. This is because I’m not afraid to be dumb. And I know that sometimes the ignorant if they can be
articulate about their ignorance are quite helpful to those of us who know…just about everything.
Don’t they say—whoever they are—that “ignorance is the beginning of wisdom”? This morning I’m not even sure what that means, but I know
that in order to learn, you have to admit that you don’t know.
Remember the guy who sat in a barrel on a streetcorner in ancient Athens holding up a lamp and searching for an honest man? Or, my
goodness gracious (I haven’t said that in a while), consider Socrates himself, whose great contribution was to say over and over that he didn’t
know. Of course he knew a lot: he knew how to ask a question.###
DAY 19 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sun., Feb. 19, 2017
In the years 1947 to 1951 when we lived on the farm in Deep Creek, I was a busy kid. If you’re a country kid you spend a lot of time alone. I
found things to amuse myself. My brother and I helped with getting the ground ready for the wheat crop, and so when it was harvested (we
helped with that too, of course) and sold in the early summer, I had a small share of the proceeds—by the grace of Dad. Of course my brother
did too. I think I got about $100.
With that money I bought a portable typewriter, a Smith-Corona. I was enchanted with it and promptly painted the keys with luminous paint so
that I could type in the dark after my parents told me to go to bed. Luminous paint, which I bought from Johnson Smith and Company in
Chicago, a mail order house where you could get all manner of odd things, was luminous only if you illuminated it by exposing it to light, and the
luminosity only lasted for a short time. So in order to see the keys (I did not then know the touch system) glowing in the dark I’d have to hold the
typewriter keyboard up to my desk lamp for a minute or two before.
This was awkward, plus the fact that I did not see the keys in the dark except as blobs of glowing paint—I didn’t know one letter from another.
So it was, finally, a gimmick. Yet ever since I’ve bragged about it, even as I am now, as an indication of my literary zeal.
I didn’t know what to write. So far I had had no literary education whatever in school. English class was spelling, which I was very good at,
maybe some grammar, which bored me---if it sounded right, that was enough for me—and surely some reading, though I have no memory (I’ll
have to work on that) of reading anything in school.
At home I read a lot, but never anything assigned. At home I read everything on our living room tables: the Manhattan Mercury, the Topeka
Daily Capital, the Kansas City Times and the Kansas City Star, for newspapers. And magazines like Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post—
all of it, nearly—even some of Dad’s medical journals and whatever else came in the mail. My older brother, by then a teenager, subscribed to
Popular Mechanics and Mechanics Illustrated, and I read those, though not so avidly as he did; and he had a couple of photography
magazines (he bought a camera with his wheat money) that would sometimes have a picture or two of a nude that, along with the bra ads in
the Sears, Roebuck catalog, were beginning to interest me too.
We had a Bible story book that was interesting—we never went to church and may not even have owned a Bible—heathens that we were—so
my only knowledge of the stories of the Bible came through that, the great book by one Elsie E. Egermeier I read from one end to the other.
Mom and Dad belonged to the Book-of-the-Month Club, and I may have read some of those. Of course I read all manner of comic books—
from Archie and His Friends to Crime Does Not Pay to the various Superman and Superboy and Wonder Woman…all these and more.###
DAY 18 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sat., Feb. 18, 2017
I’m a willing writer and I’ve been getting a good ride so far this year. On January 1 I set the goal of writing 1,000,000 words this year, 2,740
words per day. Just to make the math easier I set the goal at 3,000 every day. That’s a fair amount of writing—about six typewritten pages.
So far I’m moving right on target and this morning I start the 18th of the month with 52K+ words so far this month. By the end of today I want to
have 54K—3 times 18 = 54. There you go.
I’ve tried to write a million words in one year before, maybe five or six years ago or more…I got through April, something like 120K words, and
then I had to lay off. It was just taking too much time. So I cut back and ended out the year with quite a bit less than a million.
Why a million words in one year?
Mostly just to get some publicity for journaling. To show that if you don’t dither, if you write fast and don’t spend writing time thinking…you’ll be
able to write a lot more. Even more, the writing will be more authentic and probably just plain better.
But an interesting thing along the way is happening: I seem to be running out of things to write about, or at least, I’m having to work harder at it.
Not surprising: after all, when you’ve been writing about your life for more than fifty years, day in and day out, you may run out of material.
But stubbornly I persist. I persist and insist that there is still more to say that I’m just not getting to. I’m just not looking closely enough, not
imaginatively enough. Is all life a big long story, or isn’t it? Are we (me) to limit the narrative of my life to “stories,” whatever that may mean,
narratives with a beginning a middle, and an end?
I would call this a story from yesterday, humdrum as the day was. After the meeting I came out and stood there in the sun waiting for June, who
had gone to the bathroom. The guy standing next to me was Josh, a cook—or as he told me, a “sous-chef” at a rather classy-looking
restaurant just across the street. I said something about how good the sun felt and we started talking. So, I said, picking up on his sous-chef
thing, speaking in slow bad French, Quel est la specialite de la maison?
He shrugged. Everything, he said. Anything.
I nodded. Sea food?
We have sea food, sure, he said.
Octopus? I said, smiling. Do you have octopus? Calimari, isn’t it?
Josh shook his head and took a drag on his cigarette. Calimari is squid. Yes, we have calamari.
June came out and was ready to walk to the car. We chatted with Josh another minute or two and then walked down the street. I told her what
Josh said about calamari. We ought to eat there with the kids sometime, June said. Let’s do, I said.###
DAY 16 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG
Thu., Feb. 16, 2017
I didn’t come from a musical family. Oh, my mother would sing while doing housework, popular songs or songs she learned as a girl, and she
would whistle too, and was pretty good at it. My dad had no interest in music and did not seem to have any feel for it. Very rarely, perhaps while
driving, he would hum a tuneless thing that amounted to little more than a sound you might hear from a fan motor.
Around 9 or so we bought a piano, an upright, or maybe rented it, I don’t remember, and I took a few lessons. Maybe I came home from school
and said they were doing music in school, said something about it, and Mom agreed to getting me some lessons and even a piano. I don’t
think my big brother had expressed any interest in it, though later in high school he was in boy’s chorus and had a very good singing voice.
So I took a few lessons. Every Saturday morning I’d go to Mrs. Somebody’s house down around 15th and Laramie, a little white house on the
corner with a side entrance and that’s where the pupils would sit on the steps waiting for their turn for a half hour lesson, which probably cost
fifty cents, if that. I learned a few little things. One was C D E, C D E, then a skip! Which along with a couple of bars of a ditty called Country
Gardens is the only thing I know today, and if I walked past a piano somewhere and was bored enough, I might rap out.
Anyhow I learned about Middle C and stuff like that, all just one-handed stuff until one day the lady (I can’t remember her name or anything
about her) set me to work using both hands at once on some tune. I didn’t take to it easily, and I didn’t practice much at home, and then not at
all. A recital was coming up and I was supposed to play the two-handed piece and…I quit. I went to my mother and told her and she made the
necessary call to cancel my lessons, and that was the end of my piano career.
The next year I took a few violin lessons and learned to play, badly, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star on the rented violin. I remember my father
cringing in the corner behind his newspaper while I played. He didn’t complain; just cringed. I fell behind the class because the violin I rented, or
maybe it was the bow for it, didn’t have the proper horsehair or something. They had to send it off to be repaired and they didn’t have another,
so I didn’t play at all, and of course by the time they got the bow or whatever—maybe the bridge of the instrument was broken, I just don’t
recall—anyhow, I dropped out of that.
So the house fell mercifully silent. Dad read his newspaper, Mom cooked dinner, and my brother was probably off with friends still playing or
maybe he was by then working on his bike (he became an engineer)…I probably read the parts of the newspaper as my father finished them,
or went to my room and read from my huge stack of comic books, which I loved. It’s possible I may even have had some homework from
My music career ended thus; but not so my love of music. That didn’t happen, though, until a couple of years later when we moved to the
country, six miles from downtown on a big farm with a huge old stone farmhouse, and hi-fi was invented, and we bought one—a “console,” as
they were called, and voila, we had a record player, and with it came a few records.
One of the records was Toscanini conducting the NBC Radio Symphony Orchestra playing Petyr Illich Tsychaikovy’s Sixth Symphony (I’m
trying to remember it all) in E minor…maybe? The famous Pathethique? I began listening to that, and I fell in love. ###
13 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Mon., February 13, 2017
So we did the workshop at the great New York Public Library, all six of us counting June and me, and things really went rather well. There were
three ladies and a young man there with his mother, who was one of the three ladies. I think he was a high school boy on vacation for the
summer and doing the right thing by accompanying his mother, who truly was an enthusiast in the writing of family history.
And afterwards we loaded up our books and briefcases, took a few photographs on the steps of the library in front of one of the great stone
lions, and started up the crowded street to the subway station. By this time it was early afternoon and the sun was bearing down and it was hot.
I had a backpack and a briefcase in each hand and we lumbered along. June had her heavy purse and a large briefcase (full of books, what
else?) but we were not young and we tired easily.
And we weren’t happy. June said she hated New York and was never coming back. We crossed a street and endured once again all the horn-
honking of the taxis, trucks and other cars, and I really had to agree. I kept doggedly saying, We got some photos and it’ll be good publicity,
and June kept saying how she was never coming back in her natural life. We’ve got to rest, I said. We dropped our burdens and leaned
against a lamp post to take a few breaths.
Immediately some lady came out of the crowd and went up to June. “Are you all right, dearie?” she said. “Are you going to be all right?” And
she…smiled! Wearily June smiled back and said, yes, thanks, she was going to be okay. The lady touched her arm and murmured something
encouraging and moved on, disappearing in the throng.
And we picked up our bags and trudged on. Somehow after that, New York didn’t seem like such a bad place.
We got back to the Bronx, packed up, loaded the car and pointed ourselves north to New England and our next gig: Providence Public Library.
In Providence, the largest city in the smallest state (geographically), we were received by 30 or more enthusiasts and sold out all our books.
The librarian was friendly and chatty and showed us around the big cavernous old building that was their city’s public library.
We stayed with an old friend and he took us to dinner and put us up for the night, and then next day he showed us around his town—not
Providence, but just over in Massachusetts, in a town I cannot now remember the name of. (More and more I am losing things like that, even
while remembering that the name of my 7th grade social studies teacher was Miss Ida Jane Summers) It wasn’t a small town. It started with W.
June still swears she’s never going back to New York. As for me, well, I’m still young, still a believer in what might have been…
DAY 14 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Tue., Feb. 14, 2017
We live in turbulent times. Uh, when did we not? Did you ever get up in the morning and turn on the news and they said, There’s really no news
this morning, everything’s going just fine, so please go back to sleep for an extra hour? No, that has not happened.
When I was a boy we used to go to the movies. Nothing amazing about that, is there? But what is amazing is that we just went to the movies.
We didn’t go to see a particular movie, it was Thursday night or Saturday afternoon and that’s when we went to the movies. It didn’t really
matter what was on.
That’s why when we went to the movies, it didn’t much matter when the movie had started. We just went in and the usher showed us to our
seats and we sat down and watched until that scene we saw first came around again. Well, we said to one another, this is where we came in,
and we got up and walked out, happy and full of popcorn.
Now I’m feeling that way with our national political life. I remember Richard Milhous Nixon, who was forced to resign rather than face
impeachment and conviction for high crimes and misdemeanors against our country, the United States of America. He said that he was not a
crook, and it turned out that he was indeed a crook.
The turmoil in the Nixon White House was in the early 70’s. The world was in a turmoil, as it always is, but it was a bigger turmoil than usual.
There was a war on and the world was sick of it. I seem to remember there was quite a question about what the President knew and when did
he know it. Now…to me that has a familiar ring, and I see and hear the ringing continuing this morning on CNN, MSNBC, but, as if to give the
horselaugh and a wink-wink to all this, on FOX NEWS I see a story about an entertainer who has designed a gown that says MAKE AMERICA
Not every day when you get up to journal—as I have now for some fifty years plus—not every day is going to be coherent and a single
wonderful old timer story about your blessed childhood. Some days are a mishmash.
Today is a mishmash for me. I have only to get my 500 words out. I’m tempted to write Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of
their country over and over until I get there. I am quite sure that some mornings when Arthur Rubenstein got up to practice he did a few simple
and very nimble hand twists or whatever and stayed there the requisite time that he set for himself and then he went back to bed.
That’s what I’m going to do, and I’m not Arthur Rubenstein, but I’m going back to bed. This is where I came in. I’m here, I’m writing so that I may
live to write again tomorrow, maybe more coherently. Maybe not.
Write along with me every day for the next 28 days and you will form the habit of journaling every day, one day at a time. In one
year if you write 500 words a day you will write 182,500 words--the length of three books. If you write 250 words a day, you will
write 91,250 words, the length of one long book. Choose which you want to do, 500 or 250, then start in and stick to it. If you
have any trouble and need some help/support, please call me at 785-564-1118. Leave a message and I will call you back the
same day. This is important if you consider writing your personal and family history important to your descendants.